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Independent space for art and encounters in Rabat, Morocco. Interview with Abdellah Karroum.By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Nov 2005
Haupt & Binder: In which cultural context and in which art scene in Rabat and elsewhere in Morocco does L'appartement 22 operate? What made you decide to initiate such a project?
Abdellah Karroum: Morocco has experienced significant cultural change over the last few years. The rapid development of new information technologies, especially the Internet, allows for an extensive access to culture in other countries around the world. Just the same, as a result of various structural factors, Morocco is still more of a consumer than a producer of culture. There is also a great lack of exhibiting and distribution possibilities for young artists. The few non-profit galleries are state-run and their programs are not defined through serious art politics. In fact, the people in charge of the programs for these spaces are not art professionals, but rather members of the Ministry of Culture.
L'appartement 22 is the result of this situation and, ultimately, of a coincidence. Originally, the apartment was only meant as my own private home. After I finished studying in Europe, I planned to work at universities and art schools in Morocco. I had a clear idea of how cultural activities in the context of this country could be developed. I came to Rabat to assist in setting up an art department at a Moroccan university, to work with artists, and to spend the rest of my time writing books. In the end, I decided to use my own apartment as an alternative to the lack of interest shown by institutional spaces in the kinds of artistic forms that really interested me. With that, L'appartement 22 became a space of freedom for both the artists and myself.
The top priority goal is to create a presence for art works and give artists the chance to meet the public. This has a lot to do with my wanting to think through with the artists different ways of communicating and exhibiting, but also with my intention to share artistic experiences with the public in Morocco and in other parts of the world. You never need a full range of technical equipment and devices to bring about meaningful works and exhibitions. You only have to listen to the artists and pay attention to the audience. L'appartement 22 shows already well-known artists (Ahmed Essyad, Fouad Bellamine, Fabrice Hyber, Jean-Paul Thibeau, and others) as well as young artists such as Younes Rahmoun, Safaa Erruas, and students of the Drama and Cultural Entertainment School (ISADAC). But, above all, the apartment is a meeting place for artists who deal with the world’s current events. Basically, this is about giving meaning to cultural activities and providing a definition of art developed from the time and space in which one lives. It would please me to bring even more artists into the international network of contemporary art, especially from the younger generation, the artists working with the kind of material found everywhere in our daily life.
H&B: Could you describe the spaces and facilities of L’Appartment 22, and the character of the surrounding neighborhood?
A.K.: L'appartement 22 is located in the heart of Rabat – Morocco’s administrative capital also the seat of all the ministries – in a building from the 1920s, which faces the Moroccan Parliament.
The atmosphere of the neighborhood gives the impression of life in the country, like it does on Avenue Mohamed V, where young people meet and take strolls in the evening. But this is also a district where, almost every day, the enraged students and the unemployed who try to reach the parliamentary building are kept back by the police. This can sometimes be unbearable, especially when the police chase after demonstrators with rubber clubs...
L'appartement 22 plays with the paradox of being a very small and very big space at the same time. To gain access into L'appartement 22, you have to first find the entrance of an old building without a house number, and then mount the steps to the third floor. The actual surface space is only thirty square meters; but compared to all that goes on here, the physical dimensions are far greater than that. The artistic works and proposals shown here always draw reactions from outside of L'appartement 22, whether through educational initiatives, performances staged in the city, or publications offering a sensitive and intellectual continuation of the works.
H&B: Could you name a few of the exhibition projects that you presented at L’appartment 22, and explain their curatorial concept? How exactly did cooperating with the artists work?
A.K.: The first exhibition at L’appartment 22 was "JF_JH individualités" (Young Women_Young Men, Individualities). The works for this show were developed in the apartment’s spaces in the framework of the artists’ two-week-long residency. The "Brisa" installation, for example, created by Safaa Erruas for the exhibition, was later shown in Naples at the 2005 Biennial of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean. The main principle behind this collaborating of artists under the defining title of "JF_JH," namely to address the complexity of the relationship between men and women in Morocco, was continued in other exhibitions: JF_JH Cohabitation, JF_JH Agreements, and JF_JH Complicity. Over the next few months, I hope to continue this collaborative principle with a project entitled "JF_JH Freedoms," in which an unlimited number of artists participate.
There were also exhibitions with rather well-known artists such as Fouad Bellamine and Mustapha Boujeamoui. Bellamine was invited for "Une leçon de peinture" (A Painting Lesson): the artist carried out his work in front of an audience for longer than a month. This action-piece made a strong impression and incited public debates. Boujeamoui initiated the "SuperTea" exhibition, which consisted of three parts, three works, and three formal approaches. This allowed him to test his intentions and share their sense and sensibility with the audience. His manifestations extend beyond the exhibition space by incorporating cultural and political themes that address the context of artistic creativity both in Morocco and abroad.
H&B: How have audiences responded so far to these projects?
A.K.: There was a deep interest on the part of the students and artists, as well as from a public eager to encounter culture. Although L'appartement 22 is not visible from the street, a good many visitors make the effort to find the entrance in order to attend the apartment’s different manifestations. The meetings with the artists are so successful because the Moroccan public truly enjoys talking to them. That might be linked to Morocco’s culture being as much an oral as visual one. Besides that, from the very beginning, the Moroccan press frequently reported on this space and the events held here. At the end of an event, you always have people who stay a little longer to meet with friends or other artists. Then the discussions become a lot more relaxed, if still as serious as before. Several projects originated from these informal meetings.
H&B: What is the greatest challenge when managing such a space?
A.K.: One sign of success is that other people were impressed enough by L'appartement to begin showing art in their own apartments. Good examples of this are L’appart du 2e and Le 17e in Casablanca, and I hope this continues in the future. The current challenge concerns making the space finance itself. What I hope for is that, with the artists, it will be possible to further develop the cooperative aspect and nurture a greater interest among the collectors and institutions working in the area of contemporary art.
H&B: How do you organize the Residency Program?
A.K.: The basic work principle of L'appartement 22 is twofold: ambitious meetings and ambitious collaborations. Each residency consists of an investigation conducted on several levels, in the context of the apartment, the city, the country, and the world. This includes a carefully worked through experiment with different forms and media, by no means limited to this space alone. The residency space is a kind of "headquarters" or "editing room" for developing an art project that surpasses the physical space of an exhibition. The artist is not obliged to set up the exhibition, but we always organize an open public discussion with the artist.
The program of L'appartement 22 always begins with me meeting an artist or discovering the artist’s work. Then we work together on a way to express an intention through exhibitions, lectures, performances, or through other means. It makes no difference to me whether a project is realized in L'appartement, in a museum, in the lecture hall of a university, or in the public space. When we face the public, I play the role of the host, curator, moderator.
H&B: Logistically speaking, how do you organize the artists’ residency periods? How do you decide, for example, on the length of a residency? Do you only invite those artists whose works you already know? Do you also consider applications and proposals? While the artists are in Rabat, do they live in L'appartement? How is the financial aspect resolved?
A.K.: The L'appartement 22 artist residencies are always linked to specific projects. A residency can last up to five weeks. Since L'appartement 22 is a privately-run space, each project is prepared by both the artist and the host. The artists are chosen on the basis of a project presentation, following a call for submissions posted in the Internet. The residencies and events are cooperatively financed. Both the artist and the host are involved in this process, whether through the support for the production (rentals, sales) or any public or private grants. But I often have to advance the production fees, which constitute very limited investments compared to those made by galleries. The only institution currently offering friendly support to our projects is the French Embassy to Morocco. Whenever I’m in Rabat, I live in L'appartement 22 myself, and therefore, in the event of a residency, I have to find other housing for the artist, something which only happens about two or four times a year. The foreigner artists often live with local colleagues or with friends.
H&B: L'appartement 22 is organizing the project "Coprésences" (Coexistence) in Morocco, together with the Asociación para la Mediación Cultural, Vejer de la Frontera (Spain), and Synesthesie in France. Could you briefly describe what this is about and which activities are scheduled to take place in Morocco?
A.K.: "Coprésences" is a project that was developed after the meeting of three curators (Anne-Marie Morice from Synesthésie, Cécile Bourne from the AMC in Spain, and myself, representing L'appartement 22 in Morocco). The Moroccan section of the project began when Fabrice Hyber initiated his "Museum of Plastic" at the outset of a trip taken along the "oil route" from Morocco to the Middle East via Indonesia. With this project, up until the opening of the "Museum of Plastic" in the year 2011, Fabrice Hyber investigates Europe’s various relationships to Islam.
In connection with working on the concept of "Absent Capital," a project to be developed over the next few months, Mohamed El-Baz and Christophe Boulanger both stayed at L'appartement 22 in July and September.
All the projects of "Coprésences" are based on embedding the artists’ works in the specific context and on audience participation. The project’s impact can be local, regarding the concrete plan of action and immediate experiences, but also universal and function on an artistic and human level.
Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt
Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art. Based in Berlin, Germany.